Since the terrorist attack on a convoy in Pulwama on February 14th, 2019, GreatGameIndia has been closely watching suspicious online activities from across the border, intent on creating chaos and confusion in India. Although the impact of such low-level misinformation was minimal initially, it was on the morning of Pakistani airstrikes on India that the full extent of this propaganda was visible. Social media was flooded with fake news and videos, some of it even found its way to mainstream news channels. Seasoned fake-news busters were aghast at the volume and spread of such subversive information – by then it was too late. The damage was done. India was the target of sophisticated information warfare.
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Below we present some of the case studies from our tracking operation including a couple from other journalists, the actors involved in the deliberate disinformation campaign and its potential impact.
Case 1: Sialkot Attack (Feb-26)
A day before Pakistani airstrikes on India, news of heavy artillery firing from across the Line of Control (LoC) in Sialkot started pouring in and flooded social media. Due to the fog of war the news also found its way to certain media houses. However, thorough fact-check found the information to be false and based on a video that was three years old, uploaded on a Youtube channel ‘Pakistani Military Clips’.
Although the above fact-check didn’t mention the current origin of the said video, our investigation tracked it to a Twitter account @Natsecjeff (F Jeffery) who claimed it was “confirmed news from Pakistani security sources”. When people from the Sialkot border area did not observe any such firing, they raised concerns on the authenticity of the said information. These concerns were meted out with a heavy hand and an unconfirmed tweet presented as evidence. Finally amidst a lot of questions being raised the video was deleted after more than 24 hours. By the time it had already reached Indian mainstream media.
This news was published the next morning (of the Pakistani airstrikes) by regional newspapers of India citing a Twitter trend ‘Sialkot’ and @Natsecjeff as the source. Here is one such regional report published in a Gujarati daily newspaper with a daily circulation of over 8.5 lakhs. The readers of the daily still believe the attack by India near Sialkot was real. The news was carried by various regional newspapers in different states of India.
Our initial assessment of the case rested with it being just an innocent mistake. However, repeated instances of the same and the way it was being disseminated showed it was a deliberate pattern.
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Case 2: Fort Abbas Attack (Mar 4)
On Mar 4 it was reported that villagers heard loud bangs in an area near Fort Abbas, in the Cholistan desert in Pakistan’s Bahawalpur district. The source of the story again turned out to be @Natsecjeff who claimed “multiple credible Pakistani sources confirmed” to him that the “Indian Air Force has dropped bombs near Fort Abbas, Pakistan.”
By this time many defense enthusiasts and journalists were gravitating towards this kind of information from behind enemy lines which enabled its dissemination further to a vast Indian readership. The Indian Air Force and the Army itself denied any such attack took place. Indian journalists suspected the disinformation to be originating from Inter Services Public Relations of Pakistan (DGISPR).
Case 3: IAF MiG shot down Indian MI-17 Chopper (Mar 6)
On March 7 (three days after the above incident) our team spotted a very curious news report being circulated on the network related to the above Twitter handle. Titled ‘IAF MiG-21 shot down own rescue Helicopter on 27th February’, the news was published (twice) on the website IPA News Agency. When we could not find confirmation of the news from our defense and senior journalist sources we probed the matter deeper.
The 1 year 10 months old website says it is powered by Indian Press Association, New Delhi and has details about all of its editors. The odd thing was that it was a Hindi language based news portal and the story in question was published in English. We suspected the website could have been hacked. We tried to reach the editors and inform them about the issue but were unsuccessful.
We alerted the Indian Army and watched closely on the dissemination of the report. Although published on a hacked Indian portal, in just 2 hours we spotted the report appearing on Pakistani defense forums and in 4 hours being tweeted by possibly unsuspecting low-impact Pakistani handles (possibly to gain traction before major players pick it up).
What was striking to our group was that these handles were continuously tagging the same suspect handle @Natsecjeff and others already known for circulating fake news and debunked in the media.
Of the above 5 tagged handles, one @khalid_pk runs Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)’s ‘perception management’ company (detailed below and also related to @Natsecjeff). @KashmirIntel and @Homesecpak (Homeland Security Pakistan), are suspended by authorities for suspicious activities.
— GreatGameIndia (@GreatGameIndia) March 7, 2019
Before the propaganda piece could do further damage, we were told by defense sources that it was possibly taken down by Cyber Command.
Case 4: Escalation at LOC
Just a couple of days before Indian Air Force strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp at Balakot in Pakistan, the above handle @Homesecpak and blog by the same name tried to pass off images from 2014 and 2016 as present-day troop build-up. As was the case in Sialkot attack, the images were actually found to be of well-known artillery gun position. The case was investigated and @Homesecpak exposed by Col (Retired) Vinayak Bhat.
Case 5: Escalating Tensions between India-China
In early March while tracking suspicious activities we came across a lot of chatter on social media that the handle @Natsecjeff also tried to escalate tensions between India and China by sharing a link of a website which was quoting an article dated 9 Feb, 2018 and insinuating that it was being done recently. We do not have a link for the tweet since it was deleted. However another vigilant Twitterati managed to get a screengrab.
These are just few of the cases we have tracked. Due to the sensitive nature of other cases our team has decided not to publish it in public domain.
Involvement of Non-Pakistani Actors
While a huge chunk of disinformation originated from @Natsecjeff handle (which tweeted 24/7 during the days of the India-Pakistan conflict) the same was intentionally or unintentionally further disseminated through American and British handles with huge following as well which made the disinformation to spread into international circles. A couple of these flagged by our team which routinely engaged in the spread of suspicious activities from @Natsecjeff are @ELINTNews and @IntelCrab.
It has been incorrectly reported in international media that the above said handles never engaged in India-Pak specific information sharing and that these handles are in no way related to @Natsecjeff. Below we present of the cases where these handles did engaged in and became unwitting victims in the propagation of Pakistani disinformation emanating from @Natsecjeff. The below mentioned incidents never took place and in many cases were flagged by their own vigilant followers.
Who Is @Natsecjeff
Proclaimed to be a neutral observer, Faran Jeffery is the Deputy Director and Head of South Asia desk on terrorism at ITCT, counter-terrorism think tank headquartered in London run by retired British, Israeli and Pakistani military officers. It is here that Khalid Muhammad (as mentioned above @khalid_pk) was an advisor from Pakistan. Both Faran and Khalid are however related to ISI’s ‘perception management’ firm CommandEleven – where is the Director General. It has been incorrectly reported by many journalists covering this story that @Natsecjeff in not associated with Pakistani intelligence outfit.
CommandEleven – ISI’s Perception Management Operation
At the source of this disinformation campaign against India is ISI’s propaganda outfit CommandEleven. As per Pakistani media reports CommandEleven is a “mysteriously funded think tank” led by Lt Gen (r) Tariq Khan and Col (r) Azam Qadri supported by a cast of ‘analysts’ who came up through the ranks of PKKH and its off-shoots. The report also details CommandEleven’s close ties with Pakistani military and intelligence and questions its objectives of flooding the internet with pro-Pakistani propaganda.
Contributors for CommandEleven.com include retired Pakistan military officers such as Colonel Azam Qadri (retired), and Syed Haider Raza Mehdi, a former Pakistan Military officer who now lives in Canada and works for a mobile phone company. Others so-called ‘analysts’ are not military, but have direct ties to organizations with close ties to Pakistan military and intelligence agencies. These include Zeeshan Shahid Khan and Syed Ali Zia Jaffery, both members of the “Center for Strategic & Contemporary Research” (CSCR), an obscure Islamabad ‘think-tank’ founded by individuals with close ties to agencies after they completed trainings at NDU.
The question that must constantly be asked is what is the point? Do the strategic geniuses behind these operations believe that if they arrest critics and fill the internet with such obvious pro-Army propaganda that they will somehow not only manage ‘perceptions’ but reality also? Every day we hear more and more phrases like ‘information warfare’ and ‘psyops’ and ‘perception management’, but the truth is that bombings keep killing hundreds. Jihadis keep making more bombs. Banned groups raise more funds for jihad not from foreign agencies, but from our own citizens. And not once have any of these fake ‘defence analysts’ on social media say stopped any of them. So, if they are not actually making Pakistan safer…..what is the point exactly?
Excerpt from Pakistani news report “Command Eleven”: What’s the Point of ISI’s Latest ‘Perception Management’ Operation?
Harassment of Reporters
Atleast four reporters (two female) from different media houses who reported against these handles on various issues were threatened with their personal details dumped on social media, a viscous campaign launched against the media house itself with warning letters sent to the editors and even given death threats. We encourage journalists to investigate this aspect.
GreatGameIndia is a journal on geopolitics and international relations.